The third season of Better Things isn’t just a continuation of Adlon’s mission to put these subjects on television, in a series that’s funny, empathetic, and experimental all at once. The eight episodes made available for review also seem to think about the inevitability of change, and what it means to handle change with grace. Sam is facing menopause, approaching her “gland finale, like the fireworks at the Fourth of July,” as a particularly blunt doctor tells her. She’s having a colonoscopy and hot flashes, and struggling to fit into her clothes, and experiencing disturbing sex dreams about her ex (Matthew Glave). Duke (Olivia Edward), her youngest daughter, is entering puberty. Max is leaving home. Sam’s mother, Phil (Celia Imrie), is increasingly forgetful and enraged by any attempts to check her dangerous driving.
The changes happening in the show, whether intentionally or not, also reflect change behind the scenes. In November 2017, when episodes of Better Things’s second season were still airing, The New York Times published reports from five women that C.K. had sexually harassed them. The public disgrace of Adlon’s longtime friend and collaborator, the person who had championed Adlon and helped usher her show into being, left her reportedly wondering whether to continue with Better Things at all. Eventually, she severed ties with C.K., fired her manager, Dave Becky (whom she shared with C.K., and who apologized for helping the comedian cover up the misconduct allegations), and persisted with the show.
Season 3, then, offers the first batch of episodes that Adlon has spearheaded on her own. She hired four new writers to replace C.K., but, as with the second season, directed every episode herself. The hallmarks of the series remain—Better Things is more a montage of different sequences than a linear story with straightforward episodic arcs, and the humor is as strange and irreverent as ever. But Adlon also seems to be taking more risks, both as a creator and as a star. In the first episode, as Sam and Max arrive in Chicago, the scene is presented through the lens of Max’s camera, in poignant black-and-white portraits and video fragments. The scene is moody and impressionistic, conveying the bond between the women. They appear to be trying to capture the essence of each other in images, Sam flipping off graffiti dedicated to “Daddy,” Max surveying her surroundings to see how they’ll photograph. They’re together in the portraits, and then they’re alone.
Back in L.A., Sam returns home to increasing truculence from her middle daughter, Frankie (Hannah Alligood), and a car that her mother has apparently banged up. She’s shooting a big-budget zombie movie helmed by a feckless director (Love Actually’s Kris Marshall), and she’s haunted by men both real and supernatural. In addition to her violent dreams about her ex, Sam keeps seeing visions of her father in the 1970s, swilling a martini and delivering platitudes and bad advice. (“Be smart, don’t be stupid,” he tells her, when she’s debating making a stink at work over unsafe conditions. “Someone else will say something. You gotta hang on to your job.”) It’s tempting to read these presences as a manifestation of the male energy Adlon’s trying to shake off in reconfiguring her show on her own. The scenes with Sam’s father in particular can be maddeningly elliptical, but as with so much on the show, Adlon seems to be evoking a feeling rather than saying something concrete.